What is "uneven development"?

prepared by Patrick Bond

(appears in P.O'Hara (Ed) (1999), The Encyclopaedia of Political Economy, London, Routledge.)

A useful summary of the process of uneven development, as a necessary aspect of capitalism, comes from volume one of Marx's Capital (ch 27, paragraph 15). Here he states that a major contradiction of capitalism is the simultaneous emergence of concentrations of wealth and capital (for capitalists), on the one hand, and poverty and oppression (for workers), on the other. This "general law of capitalist accumulation", as Marx termed it, highlights capital-labor conflict, and is one way to ground a theory of uneven development. But thinking about uneven and combined development dates further back, at least to Marx's Grundrisse (1857-58), where unevenness represents the condition for a transition from one declining mode of production to another rising, more progressive mode. In general terms, then, uneven development can relate to differential growth of sectors, geographical processes, classes and regions at the global, regional, national, sub-national and local level.

The differing conceptual emphases are paralleled by debate surrounding the origins and socioeconomic mechanisms of unevenness. Neil Smith (1990:ch 3) rooted the equalization and differentiation of capital -- the fundamental motions of uneven development -- in the widespread emergence of the division of labor. Ernest Mandel (1968:210) searched even further back, to "private production" among different producers within the same community; insisting that "differences of aptitude between individuals, the differences of fertility between animals or soils, innumerable accidents of human life or the cycle of nature," were responsible for uneven development in production. Political Implications.

Ultimately, it is less the definitional roots of the concept, and more its political implications and contemporary intellectual applications, for which uneven development is known. Leon Trotsky's theory of combined and uneven development -- established in his book Results and Prospects (1905) -- served as an analytical foundation for "permanent revolution". Given the backward state of Russian society in the early twentieth century, due to structured unevenness, both bourgeois (plus nationalist or anti-colonial) and proletarian revolutions could and must be telescoped into a seamless process, led by the working class. (See Howard and King 1989.)

In more measured, less immediately political terms, the debate was revived when Marxist social science regenerated during the 1970s. Here the phenomenon of uneven and combined development in specific (peripheral or semi-peripheral) settings was explained as a process of "articulations of modes of production". In these debates, the capitalist mode of production depends upon earlier modes of production for an additional "superexploitative" subsidy by virtue of reducing the costs of labor power reproduction (Wolpe 1980), even if this did not represent a revolutionary or even transitional moment. Smith (1990:156.141) insists, however, that "it is the logic of uneven development whic